What is the optimal number of university administrators?

I was forwarded a fascinating paper on the optimal number of university administrators written by Martin and Hill who looked at public research universities in the US (the Carnegie I and II universities). The key result that they disclose in their abstract is that “the optimal staffing ratio is approximately three tenure track faculty members for every one full time administrator”.

You may wonder what the existing ratio in Australia is. I calculated this number myself, with help of my then research assistant Ben Hancock, for a presentation for the Australian Conference of Economists in 2011. What we did was take 5 universities in Australia, take 50 staff at random from each of their phone books and see whether they were doing administrative tasks or research/teaching. It turned out that 56% of staff were administrators. And this number counts many part-time and casual academics as part of the academics, so we are already using a methodology that is more generous to the number of academics than Martin and Hill. Interestingly, the ratio was a bit higher at the Technical universities than at the GO8′s but not by much.

How many more administrators do we hence have on average than Martin and Hill say is optimal? If you start with the existing number of research/teaching staff and then apply their optimal ratio, then universities have 41% too much staff in total, equivalent to 73% of all administrators in Australian universities. Another way to put this is that if you accept the Martin and Hill results as also being optimal for Australian universities, then there is a cost savings of around 41% to be had in Australian universities.

The deeper issue of the poor governance structures that have allowed the administrator explosion in Australia is of course an area where economics, and in particular economic theory, would seem to have an exceptionally fruitful area of application.

20 thoughts on “What is the optimal number of university administrators?

    • For funded/charitable service organisations the ‘client’ is not the person paying for the service. Nor is the ‘client’ the person evaluating the service. Reversals of ends and means and reverse economies of scale in such a situation are almost inevitable. In some sections of the funded arts sector, ‘costs’ can constitute 80% or more of the purpose of the system.

      • Just for clarity, I’m criticising the extraordinary level of reporting demanded by governments, and the accompanying degree of centralised decision-making and interference. There may be an academic somewhere in the country who is allowed to break wind without previously seeking the consent of the federal education minister, but Im not absolutely sure.

        • Alan,

          it is a common myth that the university bureaucracy is so big in order to comply with commonwealth legislation. You can guess the bunch that spreads it. If you want to convince yourself of how untrue it is, just go and check what all these administrators are doing. Very few of them do work you can trace back to commonwealth legislation.

        • I’ve not argued that the growth in administrator numbers is a product of commonwealth legislation. I do think the intensity of federal supervision, and not just in the education sector, is a very probable contributing cause. I’d be seriously interested in the contrary argument.

        • Alan,

          I am afraid that to be sure you would really have to go through the daily life of the administrators. As a way to set the debate going though, have a look at this typical website of a university I never intend to work at and that was the first I got when looking for student administration at that university: it details the administrative services available to students.

          http://www.unisa.edu.au/Student-Life/Support-services/Student-administration/

          I dont actually think any of the 11 services offered is mandated by either federal or commonwealth government. I am not talking about whether the services make sense (they all sound reasonable to offer. They always do), or whether they are offered efficiently, just talking about who forces the university to offer them. I think none, but have a look yourself.

  1. i suspect we are at cross-purposes. Those are not really new services or servies that universities have not traditionally provided. On the other hand, reading the 2012 funding agreement between the commonwealth and UQ suggests that it needs a tad more more than a couple of filing clerks to operate.

    • Interesting. Let us go over the concrete things that the university must disclose, shall we?

      The first concrete thing this says is that “he University must provide accurate and timely estimates of Commonwealth supported p!aces
      (EFTSL) for the current year and future years, as required by the Commonwealth.”. Not a biggie.

      The second: ” The University is not to transfer any allocation of Commonwealth supported places for designated
      courses of study between undergraduate and postgraduate courses.” No biggie either in terms of admin required.

      The third one: “The University must inform the Commonwealth before it makes any change to its course of study in
      medicine that is expected to affect the target number of domestic annual completions for that course.” Box tick exercise. 5 minutes in a competent system.

      There are about 10 more of these ‘requirements’, mainly duties to let the commonwealth know of changes and to negotiate some things in advance. Small fry. Nothing major that would require thousands more administrators than were had in the past or efficient universities manage to need at present.

      But please elaborate if you think any of these minor requirements needs a lot more administrative work than I give it credit for.

  2. Alan

    Not sure where you work but you might find the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency’s (TEQSA) first annual report worth reading (it’s now been tabled in Parliament). There has been a lot of whingeing from the university sector about TEQSA but little demonstration that universities actually understand what their responsibilities are under the new regime. A regime they all had a hand in creating through the Bradley Review et al. Not that I’m a fan of greater regulation though…..

    That said far too many administrative personnel are employed in Australia’s education sector which I think was the original point of the article. But unless there’s a blunt realisation that the core mission of education (and training) is being muddied by excessive reporting, regulation and simple (bloody) administration; nothing will change. It’s cultural. Not too dissimilar from local councils regulating everything within an inch of its life. This in effect transfers knowledge (of how to do things) and responsibility (for doing it, as well as accepting things can go wrong) from the community to the council. Who then spend most of their time threatening to sue local community members for doing common sense things, while avoiding doing anything difficult themselves. (except for rapidly churning through staff and hence being unable to maintain knowledge of much at all)

    Back to universities while I agree there are too many administrators the real problem is quality of courses and their delivery. I started a Masters degree at a Group of Eight university this year in Melbourne. The course was a Masters in name only (an increasing problem across Australia) but also simply very poor. I stuck with the course for as long as I could, worked closely with the academic staff but to no avail. It was hopeless. So I left. It was the second time I’d started a Masters and the second time I left because of poor course quality. My undergrad degree was for the most part excellent although only after I transferred from one degree to another after first semester (which was awful). No surprises that at neither my first undergrad school or either of my post-grad schools were any of my concerns taken seriously.

    Universities and their staff (academic and administrative) are a protected species. A completely open and competitive market would kill off a lot of the sector’s bad bits. Would this be a good thing though? Worth considering.

    • within the logic of first year economics, anyone afraid of competition for their jobs is basically acknowledging that they are probably overpaid, so I am all in favour of more competition in the university sector. Bring it on. The problem is how to introduce it and even who can introduce it? I intend to blog on it at a later date, but it is not actually clear who has the power to make real competition happen. University governance is very complicated.

    • I completely agree with the ‘part of the culture’ bit. People refer to it as ‘managerialism’ and i have heard it blamed on the nature of the first white settlements where you never questioned authority and everyone believed more authority was the answer to every problem. I have no idea whether that is correct, but the resulting administrivia is undeniably huge.

      I tend to view it as a form of hidden unemployment. Welfare-through-forms you might benevolently call it. Welfare-with-dignity if you are being very kind.

  3. I think your evaluation of Aus vs. the US research universities also misses that Aus admin staff tend to be under more central control than the US, where they are often under departmental or even individual control. This means they often get monopolized by the really useless empire builders versus actually stuck where they are needed. I think it’s common across Aus universities to have far too many people running, for example, useless student evaluation and teaching-and-learning style projects, but not enough helping staff that actually have to teach. So you end up with useless programs yet still paying expensive staff to do administrivia you could probably train a monkey to do.

    • cant disagree with that one. Another perverse effect of the centralisation is that the administrators who are at the coal face spend a lot of their time shielding the academics from administrators not at the coal face. its a self-feeding beast.

      • Hear, hear! And this provides a mechanism for growth of numbers of administrators. It also encourages academics to seek one of the burgeoning number of “deanlet” and other minor executive roles to provide them with administrative assistance. In the old days most academics were content to be good researchers and teachers, and were, on the whole, so rewarded. Now they all want to climb up the hierarchy, so as not to be left unprotected at the bottom.

  4. I’m currently seeking a refund of my tax liability for the first semester of the masters course I was enrolled in. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. In my experience universities do not understand the client/provider compact.

    If the head of school says no (likely), I may have to seek redress through the university’s general grievance process (which will also likely be unsuccessful). Failing that I can appeal to the professional associations who provide a quasi-legal accreditation of the course which the university, no matter what it might claim, would be reluctant to lose. Failing that I can take the university to court (Judith Bessant discussed the likelihood of this kind of thing happening years ago), but again I’d be hard pressed to get anywhere.

    Not that that dissuades me. Again, the issue isn’t about administration, it’s about quality, or in my case – the lack of finding it in our tertiary institutions.

    • The issue of quality is intimately connected to numbers of administrators. Any dollar spent on an administrator’s salary is not spent on academics, and hence on the teaching of the course you complain about. The managerialism pervading Australia’s universities has shifted the emphasis away from inspired and inspiring lectures that challenge the student towards facile presentations that assure the lecturer of good quality of teaching assessments. Student-staff ratios in Australia are abysmal, and the way they are calculated here flatters Australia relative to the US, for instance. It used to be the case that many of the brightest and best went into academic life. Increasingly young potential academics are choosing to go elsewhere. As an old hand in the system, I believe, sadly, that they are making the right choices.

  5. To what extent is the university administration system, which appears to be as big or bigger than research and teaching, starting to reshape universities into what is administratively convenient and attractive?

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